She's an Angel Now: Accidental Death of a Little Sister
All I remember of the funeral is the small, doll-sized casket, with white lace or ribbons on it—something suitably frilly and dainty that signified that it contained a tiny girl’s dead body.
Small towns where I grew up had a custom where the family of the deceased is treated to a lunch right after the funeral. All the mourners attend. The church ladies look after everything. I have no recollection of attending anything like that. It is likely that there was a lunch but that my mother had decided that we would not attend.
I also remember going into the rectory next-door to the church where the priest, Father Desmond, lived. He was gentle and kind, but also quite cheerful. After he spent a few minutes with my parents, he said to me, “Your little sister is an angel now. You don’t need to feel sad. She is with God in Heaven!”
And, for a few minutes, I did feel lighter.
The Family That Was
Our family in May 1961 consisted of four children and two parents. My parents were about the same age— Dad was a week older—and had been married when they were 22; actually, my mother turned 22 the day after they married. I was born when they were 23, a year and a month after their wedding, a sure indicator that there had been no improper pre-marital goings on, the kind that resulted in “premature babies” back in those proper days of the early 1950s. Mom—called Cathy by everyone but her father, who always called her Catherine—was dramatic, made herself up to look like a movie star, and my Dad, Fraser, was smitten by her for all of his life, he told me once in his old age when she had been gone for a couple of years.
Dad was a very quiet man, but recognized as very smart from his infancy. My grandmother, his mom, told me once that before he started school he was able to add and subtract numbers and just loved a math game they played. She would give him a problem and he would laugh and run over to the couch where he buried his head for a couple of minutes between the cushions, and then popped up and yelled out the answer; always correct. In 1960 he was the General Manager of a local agricultural company that bought and sold crop seeds and farm chemicals. We never seemed to have more than enough money to get by, but by the time my father retired, he had been the President of the Canadian Seed Trade Association three times, had friends in high places all over the world, and had traveled to China about three times. He was not ambitious, but he did enjoy the farming business, and he was well respected, or as the farming joke goes, “out standing in his field.”
That Spring there was me and three other children: Rex, age 6, Amy, 2 1/2, and Jimmy, the baby, was about 17 months old. We lived on my mother’s father’s farm and my father commuted to work in the town of Nipawin, about 10 miles away. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, pretty common in that era. She loved her family, but she was not really interested in housework or parenting. She was a smart person, also, and had the “Secret” been available in book form forty years before it actually hit the New York Bestsellers’ List, I am quite sure she would have read it and perhaps would have ferried Dad and her into the realm of success they never quite achieved. In lieu of doing any consistent parenting, she preferred to read and to sometimes paint. Rex and I had the run of the farm. Years later she told me that she was always quite apprehensive when we ran off together at the start of a summer day, but we always returned home safely from our adventures by supper time, so everything worked out. The two small children played happily enough within her scope of supervision, so she was often able to read a self-help book or a slim novel in a day.
The Big Sister
Both of my parents had grown up in large sibling groups, as eldest children, and had been expected to help care for the younger kids and perform other responsible eldest-child functions. The same was expected of me.
One day in May 1961, a school day, they announced that I would stay home from school to look after the younger children while they went to town to buy groceries. It was a hot day. The great sheet of ice that covered the White Fox River over the winter had heaved, cracked and broken in slabs and shards just a few weeks before. The current was strong, the water swirled and pulsed its way to the bigger rivers, and eventually to the sea.
A Day That Changed Our Family Forever
I decided that it was a good day to go into the water. The little ones could wade in the warm shallow water. Rex and I each had bikes with baskets on the front, into which we put the babies. Rex was six. He was capable of ferrying a baby in a basket on his bike down a long hill onto the highway, and to the public beach on the other side of the river. The public beach was a modest cobble margin on the river. In the 1930s when my great-grandfather and his son, my Grandpa Bert Sanders, bought the farm, the beach we headed to was the preferred destination for socialization and recreation among regional farm families in the hot summers. By the 1950s, the beach was infrequently used as a swimming location by all but those who lived very close by. Staying at small cabins at nearby fishing lakes had become the leisure norm for many farm families.
So, on this very warm, blue-skied day in late May my three younger siblings and I were the only people on the beach. Within a few minutes, we were all sinking our feet into the soft muddy bottom of the river. In my memory, within that same few minutes my little sister, Amy, had moved slightly out of my range and when I asked her to come back closer to shore, she said “No!” in that firm way 2-year olds use, and was immediately swept up on to her back by a fast-moving current. I tried to reach her as she skimmed by. She said nothing else. I called and tried to get to her. Whatever the other details are, I only remember seeing her glide by far from my grasp, faster than I could move through the water.
Somehow I remember getting to a nearby farmer’s house and pounding on their door, calling out in the most polite, but urgent voice I could manage. No one came to the door. They were not home.
I remember being back in our farmhouse, reading to Rex and Jimmy from the book “Tom Sawyer,” in a desperately animated way, unable to grasp the reality of what had happened, crying, praying out loud that this was just a bad dream. I wanted my parents to come up the drive in the truck.
When some time had passed, I left Rex to look after Jimmy and rode my bike as fast as I could to the telephone office in White Fox. That was where we went to make our telephone calls. It was a small front room in a house with a phone that was operated by the woman at a cord board behind the wall when you paid your dime through a small window. Somehow I ended up at Ida Rusk’s home across the street. Perhaps she came to get me when the phone operator found out what was happening? In any case, Ida was like an auntie to me, and I must have told her my story because I remember driving up to our house with her and the neighbour that we went to who was not home. I recall her saying from the back seat of the car that they had been milking the cows, and why had I not checked the barn. I recall Ida shushing her.
My mother was on the lawn, hugging my baby brother to her. The farm neighbour in the car's back seat asked Ida, “Is that the baby that got swept away?” Ida shook her head with a look that I caught and was thankful for. She was kind.
Other memories: I overheard our neighbour telling my mother that her older sons, esteemed good swimmers, were in the river searching for Amy.
I met with an RCMP officer back at the beach, and gave him my statement of what had had happened.
I watched TV in my grandparents’ living room when the news announcer read out the report of the event. He said something about my little sister drowning. I sobbed for the first time and my young auntie—the one who was closest in age to me, more like a big sister—came over to my chair and embraced me in my sorrow.
The White Fox River
The above video by Ken Von Bieker shows the White Fox River starting at 3:00 mark. Our family farm is on this river, now really a 'creek,' but still a force of nature.
After the Funeral
I have a small recollection of returning to school to finish Grade 4, of being treated gently by my classmates and teacher, even the boys.
The priest had suggested to my parents that it would be better for me if I went to a nearby boarding school—a convent—for the next school year. Perhaps my mother blamed me for what had happened and the priest intuited that it would be safer and healthier for me to be where objective strangers could care for me? Maybe my mother and father felt that they were incapable of giving me the spiritual direction in my life after such a devastating event and had discussed alternatives with the priest?
In any case, for the next year I lived during the week in an old convent, slept in a dorm, and enjoyed a level of peacefulness that I had not known before. The village where the convent was located was French-speaking, and our day involved going to Latin mass in the early morning, walking over to the village school for the day, and to chapel for the evening office every night before bed. My father, or one of the parents of the other four or five girls who also attended from my area, drove us to the school and picked us up, each weekend.
And So The Years Rolled Out
My younger brothers and I dealt with the grief as many children did in those days-- still do. I had dreams where my little sister appeared alive and happy enough. I also experienced paralyzing flashbacks to the day, which I was not able-- nor invited-- to share with anyone who might have helped ease the pain, guilt, regret, and loneliness for that little girl who sailed away from our life that day. I had no idea that there actually were people who could guide you through the pain of loss, and maybe there weren't in those days in Northeastern Saskatchewan, a hinterland in many ways.
My parents had a troubled life together, complicated by alcohol abuse and mental health issues. Certainly my younger brothers will also have had life experiences connected with the trauma of our little Amy's drowning. Until this time, our family--stoic, introverted, and disengaged emotionally and by geography--have not come together to discuss the impact of this tragedy on us as individuals or as a family.
Help For Children Who Have Lost A Sibling
Loss is a fact of life. While we live in a world that can be brutal for all of us, the impact of trauma and loss for children is always a magnification of what it is for adults. Fortunately there are many helpful resources to be found in your community and/or on the Internet. I became a social worker-counselor, likely as an unconscious desire to deal with my losses. One of the best and most inclusive services that I found through testimonials from bereaved families is the Compassionate Friends organization. Here you will find information about caring for your child(ren) when they have experienced sibling death. There is also a Facebook support group for people who have lost siblings. Compassionate Friends is a non-profit agency with local chapters meeting in communities in Canada and the United States. I recommend that you take a look at their 31 Messages of Hope, a short video message for each day of the month.